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Russia: Unions Plan Nationwide Strike Tomorrow To Demand Back Wages

Moscow, 4 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian trade union officials say about 10 million workers across the country may take part in protest actions tomorrow to demand payment of months of back wages.

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, or FNPR, is spearheading Tuesday's planned protests to put pressure on both federal and regional authorities to resolve the country's chronic problem of unpaid wages.

Gennady Khodakov, a spokesman for the federation, told RFE/RL in Moscow today that workers in 28 regions throughout Russia may take part in tomorrow's actions, which will include work stoppages, demonstrations and public meetings. In Moscow, he said, tens of thousands of people are expected to assemble near the Kremlin tomorrow afternoon to protest against the government's failure to pay salaries. The union's membership is estimated at about 50 million.

Khodakov said the FNPR will also picket government buildings, including both houses of parliament and the ministries of finance and economy. Their main demand: payment of more than 40 trillion rubles of back wages, the equivalent of nearly $8 billion.

Khodakov said the demonstrations would go ahead, despite appeals from Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for the strike actions to be called off. He said trade union leaders do not expect the government to come up before tomorrow with proposals meeting the demands of their members.

Chernomyrdin met with the federation's chairman, Mikhail Shmakov, last week in a bid to head off the strike actions. After their meeting, Chernomyrdin promised to come up with a schedule according to which the federal government would pay all it owes to workers in back wages by the end of the year. But Shmakov remained skeptical.

"Pledges of this kind have always been abundant," said Shmakov.

The two, however, agreed to hold a special session of the tripartite commission for social and labor disputes, which brings together union leaders, government representatives and enterprise managers, to discuss steps to deal with unpaid wages. But it is unclear when that meeting will take place.

Although Russia has in the past faced strikes over non-payment of wages, the situation appears to be getting worse. According to government statistics, strikes involving some 350,000 workers have hit nearly 4,000 enterprises so far this year.

Coal miners have been the most vocal. Strikes have been ongoing at pits in the Urals and the Kuzbass in central Siberia.

Vitaly Budko, chairman of the Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers, said last week that more than three-fourths of its members had agreed to take part in tomorrow's strike by laying down their tools.

Tomorrow's actions may not be limited to work stoppages. Coal miners in Primorye and Kuzbass have threatened to halt coal deliveries over the non-payment of wages, raising the possibility of power outages in certain areas.

Trade union representatives have pledged that tomorrow's actions will be peaceful.

In the words of one: "They will be civilized, correct, and legal, but with sharp economic demands."